Low-income renters face difficult search for housing in Sonoma County after October wildfires
KEVIN FIXLERTHE PRESS DEMOCRAT | August 16, 2018, 4:35PM
The notice to vacate was taped to Rotha Rice’s Rohnert Park apartment door the first week of May. She was expecting it, given she’d heard from neighbors that Americana Apartments was terminating the leases of every tenant enrolled in a federal housing subsidy program.
Rice, 74, was given 90 days to leave the place she has called home since 2006, when she moved into the complex on the city’s northeastern edge with a single cup, a plate and a lamp. In the dozen years since, she accumulated a bed, furniture, a variety of books and other belongings. For the first time in a long time, she felt stable.
The location of the apartment was ideal, situated only a mile and a half from her job of 26 years working graveyard shifts at a Shell gas station. It’s also not far from the city’s senior center where she grabs lunch daily, as well as a longtime network of friends who help get her to and from doctors’ appointments to manage her delicate health. Now that’s all been thrown into disarray as Rice struggles to find another landlord willing to accept her housing voucher.
“On May 3, I called 27 places,” said Rice. “There’s nothing out there, because of the fires. “It’s plenty of time,” she added of the period to relocate, “but for me it’s no time if there’s nothing available.” Finding rental housing in many parts of Sonoma County is increasingly difficult for people like Rice, who rely on the Section 8 program to afford rents in Sonoma County. The waitlist just to get into the program for low-income renters can take up to six years, and those who have finally made it in are seeing the number of landlords who accept the housing vouchers shrink by the month.
More than 4,700 people throughout Sonoma County are enrolled in the federal Section 8 program, which provides vouchers up to $1,633 per month for single-bedroom housing. The money available increases with the size of the rental.
Admission is based on income. A single person who makes up to $34,400 annually is eligible to apply, while a family of four can make as much as $49,100. Once accepted, people in the program are required to spend 30 to 40 percent of their own income on housing, excluding the value of the voucher.
Fires made it harder
Section 8 recipients had difficulty finding landlords willing to accept their vouchers before the October wildfires, which erased nearly 5,300 homes in Sonoma County. Now it is even harder, housing advocates confirm.
A Press Democrat analysis of housing data found 440 renters countywide — or 9.4 percent of the people in the Section 8 program on July 1 — have not been able to secure housing.
The problem has worsened since the fires. Last October, 313 renters, or 6.7 percent of the people in the program, were unhoused, the Press Democrat analysis found.
At the same time, more Section 8 voucher holders are being forced to leave their rentals. County officials said an average of 21 households a month have moved in the first half of 2018 — the highest total in the past eight years. Last year, an average of 13 households moved every month.
Santa Rosa, which operates its own Section 8 program, is experiencing a similar increase. Displacement of Section 8 renters since the fires is on pace to reach a six-year high, city officials said.
Opting out of program
The reasons vary. In some situations, landlords who lost their primary residence in the fires have needed a place to live and asked their tenants to leave. Other voucher recipients saw their units go up in flames. Some saw their leases terminated by landlords who wanted to put the rental back on the open market in pursuit of greater profits and fewer restrictions.
The Americana Apartments decided to leave the Section 8 program for business or economic reasons, according to a 90-day notice served to one tenant enrolled in the program. As a result, at least five tenants in the 100-unit complex who use a housing voucher had their leases terminated.
FPI Management, which oversees the apartments, would not comment on its reasons for opting out of the Section 8 program, said Kathy Rosales, senior portfolio manager for the Folsom company.
Americana charged $1,300 per month for a one-bedroom apartment last year before making renovations, according to tenants. Rent went up to $1,450 this year, and the same apartment now goes for $1,750 after the remodel. Such rents are within reach for many Section 8 renters. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development increased the housing subsidy in Sonoma County late last year in response to rising rents. The average voucher is now worth $951 a month, although renters can receive up to $1,633 a month. The amount varies by location, based on average rents in the surrounding area.
Landlords are not required to accept Section 8 renters, however. Housing advocates say many landlords do not register for the program because of misconceptions about the program or fears about renting to a low-income tenant.
“The perception among some landlords is that housing choice voucher tenants have nothing to lose,” said Martha Cheever, Sonoma County’s housing authority manager. “In fact, they have everything to lose.” The preconceived notions about Section 8 are equally discouraging for the tenants who compete on the open rental market for a place to lease.
Post-fire impacts create added risks for Section 8 recipients“I don’t understand why people are doing this,” said Madeleine Simmons, 62, who is disabled and also a longtime Section 8 resident at the Americana Apartments. “If they did accept Section 8, this place would be filled up in no time, because no one is accepting them in this county. And what’s the big deal? That’s guaranteed federal money every month.”
Like Rice, Simmons received a notice to vacate her apartment earlier this year. The former preschool teacher said she’s spent as many as seven hours a day calling and visiting different rental housing options around the county since receiving the notice. So far she’s had no luck finding a new place that will accept her, her two cats and her voucher.
‘Nowhere to go’
Simmons has resorted to looking in Lake County, even though it would move her quite a distance from the medical care and services she needs. It’s either that, she said, or possible homelessness. “I’m comfortable here. I’ve been in Rohnert Park for 18 years and in the apartment since 2003, so I’m going to have to leave everything — my stores, the laundromats, all the people I know,” Simmons said through tears. “It’s like I’m giving up 15 years of my life. I know lots of people are like me that are elderly or disabled, or both, and we’re looking at nowhere to go.”
Renters not protected
The decision by Americana Apartments to terminate the leases of Section 8 recipients is permitted under the Federal Housing Act because renters participating in the program are not defined as a protected class.
While California law prohibits landlords from discriminating against renters based on their source of income, the law excludes people who receive housing vouchers under Section 8 or other subsidy programs.“Right now, people who have a voucher have no protections from discrimination,” said Caroline Peattie, executive director of the Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California.
“What we’ve known for a long time is that voucher holders, they’re disproportionately people of color, people with disabilities and families with children. And a lot of times people who say they don’t want to rent to voucher holders, it’s code for not wanting” these protected groups.
Some cities counter
Several cities — including San Francisco, Berkeley and Santa Monica — have adopted ramped-up local ordinances to protect people with housing vouchers from discrimination by landlords. Legal challenges were waged against the San Francisco and Santa Monica bans, but both ultimately failed and the California Supreme Court denied an appeal in the San Francisco case just last month.
Marin County passed a similar source-of-income ordinance last year for its unincorporated areas, with the town of Fairfax following suit in April. The city of Novato is also looking at such a law.
Sonoma County is not presently considering a source-of-income protection, according to a county spokeswoman. The Board of Supervisors is instead focused on increasing the supply of affordable housing and supporting efforts to encourage landlords to participate in the Section 8 voucher program, said Briana Khan, public information officer of community and government affairs.
The North Bay Association of Realtors, which advocates on behalf of the region’s property owners, would welcome such an ordinance in Sonoma County that protects people with housing vouchers from discrimination.
“Generally, we’re against any kind of discrimination, especially in our area where it’s difficult enough getting any kind of low-income housing,” said Colleen Chatoff, the group’s president.
“While a property owner or manager needs to have discretion to lease to tenants based on the ongoing income available to pay the rents, the source of that income — as long as it is legal and legitimate — should not be a factor.”
No ordinance in RP
Rohnert Park has yet to broach the idea of a source-of-income ordinance, said City Manager Darrin Jenkins. The concept could come up in the future, he said, adding that the displacements of all Section 8 tenants from the Americana Apartments in Rohnert Park was concerning.
Simmons and Rice each continue to struggle to find another apartment in the county that will accept their Section 8 vouchers.
Under federal law, their landlord was required to give them 90 days to leave their apartments.
The women, who are now represented by the nonprofit Legal Aid of Sonoma, received an additional 90 days because the original notices lacked federally required language and were deemed defective.
Even so, their respective search is ongoing. Rice has a fallback plan to move to Washington state to live with her son, but much prefers staying in Sonoma County, near a bus stop that can get her to the Shell gas station for work. She has started asking customers if they know of any available units when they come in.
“I ask everybody,” she said. “I’m letting them know I’m desperate. My job will be taken away if I don’t have a place to live. That’s my earning power, because I have some bills to pay. And I love my job and I’m already here. For me to go up there, oh boy, I don’t know.”
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